The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates 30,300 people or 1.36 percent of the total population live in conditions of modern slavery in Qatar.
Forced labour in the construction sector is one of the dominant forms of modern slavery in Qatar, reflecting the demand for cheap labour to build extensive infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and National Vision 2030. The ongoing construction of football stadiums, and the huge infrastructure projects required to access and service these locations, continues to see massive influxes of migrant labour who are vulnerable to abuse.
The vast majority of construction workers are low, semi and unskilled. They are almost exclusively male (99.4 percent in 2012) and are predominately from South and South East Asian nations—India, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These men are vulnerable to exploitation at all stages of the recruitment process—from the initial stage where they often incur large debts to pay recruitment agents’ fees to reliance on their sponsor for residency and legal status, and discrimination from laws that criminalise workers for leaving exploitative situations (‘absconding’).
The incidence of migrant construction workers taking out loans to pay recruitment fees in their respective home countries creates situations of debt bondage in Qatar. The average recruitment charges are as follows: India: US $1,300, Nepal: US $1,400, the Philippines: US $1,130, Sri Lanka: US $900 and Bangladesh: US $925. Interest on these loans is being charged at rates of between 30 and 60 percent p.a. This directly conflicts with the laws of Islamic Finance under which Qatar financial institutions have been able to attract ever larger investor contributions from parties seeking to ensure that their money is managed in accordance with the strict requirements of the Islamic faith.
Workers who incur debt through their recruitment, many of whom are deceived about their true salary and face employers who are indifferent to their predicament, face substantial pressure to continue their employment to service their debt. Between the recruitment fees, the interest rates and the fact that their wages, even when paid in full, are often substantially lower than the level misrepresented to them when accepting the job, many workers are completely unable to escape the cycle of debt.
Despite substantial international pressure to reform the treatment of migrant construction workers, reports continue to find workers facing conditions that may amount to those of slavery. These include work performed under the threat of penalty or deportation, deprivation of food, inadequate accommodation with limited or no privacy, physical confinement in the work location/labour camp severely restricting freedom of movement, misrepresentation and substitution of types and terms of work, confiscation of identity documents, non-payment, withholding and/or deductions from pay, and unsafe working conditions in extremely high temperatures.
Domestic workers in Qatar are almost exclusively female, aside from gardeners, drivers, cooks and guards/watchmen who are almost exclusively male. Traditionally, the majority of female domestic workers come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. Efforts by sending countries (particularly the Philippines) to address the low wages paid to domestic workers is resulting in a growing trend of hiring cheaper maids from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and other Sub-Saharan African nations. Workers from nations without embassies in Qatar have few alternate options to flee to in cases of exploitation.
Domestic workers are excluded from protections contained within the Labour Law pursuant to Art 3(4) of the Labour Law No.14 of 2004 . Draft legislation specifically relating to domestic workers is currently under consideration. Qatar has not ratified nor does it comply with ILO Convention No.189, the Domestic Workers Convention . Domestic workers continue to report cases of serious maltreatment and abuse including physical, psychological and sexual violence. Rather than being able to access help, domestic workers risk imprisonment for ‘illicit relations’ if they report such abuse to authorities. Among female foreign nationals, domestic workers are particularly prone to being detained and deported for violating the Sponsorship Law.
In March 2013, of the 378 women held in detention, 90–95 percent had been employed as domestic workers.
Information on the exploitation of migrant fishermen on Qatari boats is an emerging but under-researched area. Anecdotal evidence suggests Qatari shipowners are hiring migrant labourers, predominately men from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines, to work on small to medium-sized vessels often for months at a time. Migrant fishermen are known to experience practices that may amount to forced labour such as limited and delayed payment of wages (for example, some men receive no wage and instead receive a percentage of that day’s catch), forced overtime, poor living conditions and abandonment at sea.
Commercial sexual exploitation
Data on adult commercial sexual exploitation is scarce due to the significant social stigma of discussing sex and widespread denial of the existence of prostitution in Qatar. Both prostitution and sex outside of marriage are illegal in Qatar. Anecdotal evidence suggests some women travelling for employment in the domestic service sector or retail and service industries may be subjected to involuntary prostitution at the hands of traffickers or labour brokers. It is also believed women who ‘abscond’ from formal employment and those without No Objection Certificates (a legal document issued by a Sponsor to certify he has no objections to his employee changing Sponsor/moving to another job) may have few options but to turn to operators of the sex trade.
Forced and early marriage
There is limited information available on forced and early marriage in Qatar. According to a 2010 government review in Qatar, 9.3 percent of marriages of Qatari women occur in the 15–19-year-old age category; while 16.6 percent of marriages of non-Qatari women in Qatar occur in the 15–19-year-old age category. The circumstances surrounding these early marriages are unknown.
The population of Qatar has grown at an unprecedented rate; between 2004 and 2014, the population has almost tripled. In 2015, 88 percent of Qatar’s population of 2,347,000 people were non-Qatari, making Qatar the country with the largest population proportion of foreigners in the world. This foreign population is predominantly made up of young, semi- or low-skilled workers who meet the demand for cheap inhouse domestic help, as labourers for the booming construction industry and as low-paid workers in roles notoriously rejected by locals. Qatari citizens represent no more than 12 percent of the population; Qatari males constitute only 4.7 percent of the total male workforce and only one percent of the private sector. Qatari leaders continue to hold strong and widespread fears of migrants gaining power via collective bargaining, asserting their labour rights, and eventually challenging the balance of power and control within their borders. Demonstrations, trade unions and associations dealing with public affairs continue to be banned in Qatar.
Terminology on this issue continues to be a cause for concern and heated debate in Qatar. The word ‘slavery’ is deemed incorrect when discussing the exploitation of workers in Qatar and can create great offence to Qatari nationals. In 2007, Qatar’s own National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) published a report which referred to the existence of modern-day ‘slavery practices’ in industries at that time. The backlash from the Qatari public and business sectors almost caused the government to close the NHRC completely. It has taken considerable time and effort by the NHRC to re-establish a trusted position and distance itself from the terminology/word ‘slavery’. Human trafficking is acknowledged but largely misunderstood, and forced labour is equated with poor employment practices rather than human rights violations.
Prevailing attitudes about migrant workers suggest persistent and deep-seated racism. Media stereotyping of migrant workers as inferior, potential rapists (male workers) and thieves (domestic workers) drives discrimination and fear. All-male labour camp accommodation sites for construction workers are located away from Qatari residential areas as there is a belief that workers are culturally insensitive, with others fearing ‘foreign bachelors’ may sexually violate Qatari women and children. In 2015, Doha’s Central Municipal Council called on the government to more strictly enforce a five-year-old ban on blue-collar workers living in neighbourhoods populated by Qatari families. These attitudes drive division and inequality.
Despite some reforms to the kafala system in 2015 (not yet in practice, discussed below), the sponsorship system increases the dependency of migrant workers on sponsors rendering them vulnerable to various forms of exploitation and abuse. The system is also open to abuse, particularly with the creation of what is termed the ‘Loose Market’—a black market trading in visas for migrant workers which do not correspond to the work being undertaken by individuals. The process enables Qatari individuals and businesses to profit from the system’s failings and allows workers to fraudulently enter the country. These workers are then open to exploitation on the black market due to their precarious legal status.
The kafala system, and limited local knowledge of the rights of foreign workers creates a starkly unequal platform for victims to assert their rights. Worker vulnerability is compounded by their limited access to mechanisms for legal redress. Generally, workers filing a court case need to stay in the country for the duration of the hearing which can take up to one year to be heard. During this time, the worker will likely have no job—which exacerbates debts and the inability to provide for dependents—no accommodation and no accepted legal status as the employer is unlikely to agree to transfer their sponsorship if they are being sued.
Women occupy an inferior status in Qatari society which affects a female victim’s ability to access justice once exploited. For example, in Qatar, women’s testimony is worth half of men’s, so police frequently discount women’s statements when refuted by male employers; and judges routinely sentence women for immorality and adultery stemming from associated sexual abuse claims. Being a woman not only increases vulnerability to being exploited but perpetuates victimisation once trapped.
Statelessness is a key risk factor for vulnerability to trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage. The NHRC of Qatar maintains concerns that Qatari women married to non-Qatari men are subject to discrimination as their children cannot obtain Qatari citizenship, as per article 34 of the Nationality Act for 2005. The Bidoon (also referred to as Bidun), a stateless minority in the Gulf region, number approximately 1,200–1,500 in Qatar. Bidoon are only allowed to apply for citizenship after living in the country for 25 consecutive years according to the Nationality Act for 2005. As only 50 citizenship applicants are accepted each year, most Bidoon remain unable to acquire citizenship. Furthermore, the government does not register the birth of Bidoon children. These issues of statelessness must be addressed to reduce vulnerability to modern slavery.
Recommendations for Government:
- Create an independent reform commission—labour rights, freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively
- Amend Article 3 of the Labour Law to ensure domestic workers, drivers, cooks and gardeners have their labour rights legally protected
- Establish a minimum wage for domestic workers
- Monitor the non-payment of wages and prosecute offenders to effectively dissuade illegal practices by employers
- Retract provisions in legislation about absconding and ensure that victims are not criminalised for fleeing exploitative situations
- Ensure law enforcement actors and the judiciary are adequately trained and sensitised on forced labour practices
- Enforce existing laws that facilitate migrant workers’ access to redress mechanisms and actively promote these mechanisms among highly vulnerable populations
- Provide new individual sponsors with information and/ or training on their legal obligations to safeguard the wellbeing of migrant workers
- Amend provisions in the Penal Code about ‘illicit relations’ to ensure victims of CSE are not criminalised
Recommendations for businesses:
- Must ensure employers are trained in the new wage payment system, and penalise employers for noncompliance with this requirement
- Must comply with restrictions on midday work and alert authorities about businesses breaching this requirement
- International businesses operating in Qatar must update the Code of Conduct and contractual provisions to include specific clauses on passport retention and the recruitment of employees for suppliers and sub-suppliers operating in Qatar
- Investigate the recruitment practices of suppliers and subsuppliers and work with suppliers to compensate staff that has paid excessive recruitment fees
- Ensure suppliers are paying staff to the contracted amount or national minimum wage, including premiums for overtime work
- Work with suppliers to develop corrective action plans and recourse for workers found exploited in supply chains